The Buzz

 

Brown & Cole Stores LLC exits Chapter 11

Following a successful confirmation hearing of its plan of reorganization in federal bankruptcy court, Brown & Cole Stores LLC exited Chapter 11 on Dec. 20.

The reorganization plan provides for the following:

  • No further layoffs or store closures planned for the company’s 1,200 employees and 20 stores under the Food Pavilion and Cost Cutter names in Washington.
  • Union contracts remain in place and employees retain all wages, benefits and seniority entitlements.
  • Brown & Cole will remain headquartered in Bellingham as an independent grocery company, and Craig Cole will remain its CEO.
  • New investment will provide capital funds for a program of store improvements.

"We are one of only a handful of retail companies who have successfully navigated the challenging bankruptcy process, and emerged mostly intact," Cole said in a press release. "It’s kind of like making lemonade out of lemons."

Hancock Park Associates, a Los Angeles-based private equity investment firm, has purchased majority shareholder status in Brown & Cole Stores LLC with a $43 million transaction. The deal closed on Dec. 21.

"Hancock Park is a rational and ethical investor which focuses on building long-term value," Cole said in the press release. He said that since the company filed for chapter 11, its sales and customer counts have been strong, which made investing in the company an attractive proposition for Hancock Park.

Cole said that two new executives he brought into the company in early 2006 were essential catalysts in turning company performance around — Kevin Weatherill, who heads operations and marketing, and Ron Stevens, who is in charge of finance and accounting.

 

Ebenal’s Bellwether Gate approved

City of Bellingham planning director, Tim Stewart, issued a decision on Dec. 20 approving greater height limits for the Bellwether Gate project located on the Bellwether Peninsula.

The Port of Bellingham had requested a height increase from 35 feet to 50 feet across the entire site. The decision allows three buildings to increase to 38 feet, and one building, just west of Anthony’s Restaurant, to be 50 feet tall when completed.

Studies conducted by city staff demonstrated that the height increases will have negligible impacts on views to the water, islands and sky from bluff properties overlooking the site, and minimal impact to the views of other buildings on the Bellwether Peninsula.

The tallest building is slated to house new offices for CH2M HILL’s expected additional 250 employees in the coming years.

For more information, call city planner Steve Sundin at 676-6982.

 

Whidbey Island Bank branch to close

The Whidbey Island Bank branch on the corner of East Bakerview and Hannegan roads will close upon completion of a merger between Everett-based Frontier Bank and Oak Harbor-based Whidbey Island Bank.

Frontier president Lyle Ryan expects the merger to be completed in March pending regulatory approval. The branch at 2504 E. Bakerview Road would then close in June because of its proximity to a Frontier branch located less than a mile away at 3410 Woburn St., he said.

Ryan said some of the branch’s staff would be moved to the Woburn Street and other Frontier branches, but said he could not speculate on whether all staff members would retain jobs with the company.

Marcy Gregory, retail branch manager for the Whidbey Island Bank location to be closed, said she could not comment on the issue except to say all staff were notified in mid-November as to what would happen with their positions and where they would be placed. For more information, visit www.frontierbank.com or www.wibank.com.

 

Fairhaven Harbor project approved

Tim Stewart, the city’s planning director, issued a decision on Dec. 11 approving a new design-review permit for Fairhaven Harbor, a mixed-use development proposed between 8th and 9th streets on Harris Avenue in Fairhaven.

The applicant, developer Ted Mischaikov, already has a completed planned contract, shoreline conditional-use permit and shoreline substantial-use permit for the project. Mischaikov also has an approved design-review permit for a development that includes a building 102 feet in height.

The modified design review permit limits the largest building to 85 feet in height and significantly reduces the mass of the building.

The 85-foot height had been set forth in the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) checklist and determination of nonsignificance completed for the project in December 2004.

A previous design-review decision by Stewart noted that he would require that any proposal for a building of more than 85 feet would require either a new SEPA checklist, or a modified design with an 85-foot limit. The applicant chose to modify the design to conform to the SEPA limits.

“I understand fully that this decision is less than the applicant had desired and more than some neighbors had wished,” Stewart said in a press release.

The project has had a contentious history. Numerous public comments were received and considered during the comment period for the application. Previous shoreline and design permits were appealed by parties concerned about the impact of the development on adjacent Padden Creek and on views and the character of the neighborhood.

For complete project background and plans for the current design, see the city’s Web site at www.cob. org/government/departments/pcd/fairhaven-harbor.aspx

 

Fairhaven Highlands: significant impact

Bellingham’s planning director and SEPA official, Tim Stewart, issued a determination on Dec. 7 that the proposed Fairhaven Highlands development would have a significant impact on the environment and would require an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to study those impacts.

The determination requests public comment on the scope of the EIS, and sets a public hearing for Jan. 16 at 6:30 p.m. to hear public testimony.

Fairhaven Highlands is a development proposed in April 2005 by Greenbriar Northwest Associates, LLC, located within Bellingham city limits between Chuckanut Drive, the Interurban Trail, Old Fairhaven Parkway, and Old Samish Highway.

The planned development proposal includes 739 units of single and multi-family residential units, a 6,000 square-foot clubhouse, and related public and private infrastructure.

Primary access to the development is proposed from Chuckanut Drive, and street improvements would be provided in accordance with state and local requirements.

Last February, Greenbriar requested that the planning department initiate the preparation of an EIS for Fairhaven Highlands.

The scoping meeting is the first step in the permitting process. Following the establishment of the scope of the impact statement, a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) will be published in Spring 2008.

All interested parties will be able to comment on the DEIS at a public hearing. Those comments will then be incorporated into a final environmental impact statement (FEIS), which will then be published. It is only after the publication of the FEIS that the review of the actual land use permits will be conducted.

For information and background on the proposal, visit the city’s Web site at www.cob.org/government/departments/pcd/fairhaven-highlands.aspx.

 

WECU awarded Large Business of the Year

The Bellingham/Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry recently honored Whatcom Educational Credit Union as the 2007 Large Business of the Year. Over the last few years WECU has experienced major growth, adding six new branches and more than doubling in employees and asset size.

With 12 branches in Whatcom county and over 51,000 members, WECU is Whatcom County’s largest member-owned, not-for-profit financial cooperative, now serving all residents of Whatcom County.

 

Minimum wage goes up

Washington’s minimum wage increased 14 cents to $8.07 an hour, effective Jan. 1, 2008.

Washington’s minimum wage applies to workers in both agricultural and non-agricultural jobs, although 14- and 15-year olds may be paid 85 percent of the adult minimum wage, or $6.86 an hour.

The Department of Labor and Industries recalculates the state’s minimum wage each year in September as required by Initiative 688, which Washington state voters approved in 1998.

The initiative requires the state to adjust the minimum wage according to the change in the federal “CPI-W,” which is a national index covering the cost of goods and services needed for day-to-day living.

 

Our Kitchen to open in Barkley’s new building

Our Kitchen Is Your Kitchen Bakery & Studio will soon open in the Barkley District’s new Drake Building.

The business will provide baked goods such as cookies, cakes, cupcakes and sweet breads that customers can purchase and decorate in the store’s studio, said co-owner Miykal Gates.

Gates has worked in early childhood education and nonprofit work, and her partner and the store’s baker, Terri Zwebber, owns a dental practice in Skagit County. Zwebber’s 18- and 20-year old children recently moved out of the house and she wanted to find an outlet to continue baking for people.

Gates and Zwebber are currently going through the city’s permitting system and hope to be open by Valentine’s Day, but Gates said it will probably be St. Patrick’s Day before they are able to open. For more information about the shop located at 3111 Newmarket St., Suite 108, call 733-7700.

 

Border conference scheduled this month

Western Washington University is partnering with the University of Victoria to host the 9th annual Border Regions in Transition (BRIT) Conference in Victoria BC and Bellingham, Jan. 12-15.

The conference will consist of two days of scholarly presentations in Victoria, a cross-border field trip to Washington state and another day of presentations in Bellingham.

Topics to be discussed include the implications of post-9/11 security measures on borders and border regions, borderland culture, economic transactions, transportation systems, and transborder governance arrangements around the world, with particular emphasis on EU and NAFTA countries.

For more information, call Chuck Hart at 650-3728 or e-mail at chuck.hart@wwu.edu.

 

Neighborhood update reviews begin

The City of Bellingham’s Planning & Community Development Department received 21 applications for Neighborhood Plan amendments, all of which can be found on the city’s Web site at www.cob.org/services/neighborhoods/community-planning/neighborhoodplanning/2008-npas/index.aspx.

An interdepartmental staff team, including the planning, public works and parks departments, is reviewing the proposals.

The planning director, Planning Commission and City Council each have the authority to docket plan amendment proposals. If docketed, each proposal will then undergo a rigorous public review process, including a mandatory neighborhood meeting, distribution to the Mayor’s Neighborhood Advisory Committee, staff report, Planning Commission public hearing recommendation and then a public hearing by the City Council, which makes the final decision.

The City Council is not expected to consider action on these proposals until late 2008.

Seven proposals varying from full-scale updates to one-line changes were received from the Fairhaven, Silver Beach, Sehome, Birchwood, Guide Meridian/Cordata, South and Sunnyland neighborhood associations, and one proposal was from a group of neighbors on behalf of Silver Beach. The Parks Department submitted a proposal to update the parks, recreation and open space element of Bellingham’s Comprehensive Plan.

The remaining 12 are site-specific amendments from property owners in the Fairhaven, Guide Meridian/Cordata, Happy Valley, Roosevelt, Samish and Sunnyland neighborhoods.

According to the process outlined in city code, the proposals submitted by property owners in Happy Valley, Roosevelt and Sunnyland neighborhoods will automatically be docketed for review in 2008 because those neighborhoods have already updated neighborhood plans.

For more information, call senior planner Greg Aucutt at 676-6982.

 

Tourism Bureau gets ready for Olympics

Starting in 2008, Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism will be offering workshops as part of their Winter Olympics Service Initiative.

The workshops will cover many topics, including customer-service training, team building, telephone skills, marketing strategies, diversity and culture awareness, and understanding the needs of visitors. Participants also will have access to up to four additional audio and/or Internet training events each year that will be led by national business experts, plus quarterly Internet forums.

Other benefits include a quarterly e-newsletter covering Winter Olympics business topics, plus international marketing efforts in coordination with Ferndale-based PRWeb that highlight participating businesses.

Bellingham-based Evergreen Team Concepts is developing the training workshops. Company President Henry Beeland saw firsthand how some businesses reacted to the opportunities and challenges posed by the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

“If Northwest Washington is prepared to reach out to these visitors and meet their unique needs, this region can reap the benefits of increased tourism for years to come,” Beeland said in a press release.

For information about participating in the Winter Olympics Service Initiative, call Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism at 671-3990.

 

Local golf store chips in for more space

Joe’s Professional Golf Lab and Indoor Golf Center, located at 4073 Hannegan Road, expanded in December.

The business opened in August 2006 with 2,000 square feet and was recently approved to acquire an additional 2,000 square feet of neighboring space. Co-owner Joe Holdridge said the company has already installed a third high-tech golf simulator, on which customers can play famous golf courses or work on their swing.

“This one has all the high-tech gizmos that you can think of,” said Holdridge. “The technology today is so incredible and it’s incredibly accurate — it’s just like playing outside.”

Joe’s Professional Golf Lab and Indoor Golf Center also offers classes on how to improve your golf game, and they make and repair clubs. For more information, call 752-3337.

 

Group of dentists to become neighbors

After four years of planning and waiting for the proper permits, dentists Eric McRory and Choong Lee will finally be neighbors in a brand new building.

Both doctors will be moving their private dental practices into a new building at 3031 Orleans St. Dr. McRory said he plans to move Northside Dental Care into its new 3,000-square-foot office Feb. 12 and be open for business shortly after that.

“What I’m looking forward to the most is having a dental practice with new equipment,” Dr. McRory said. “It’s like having a new car — it smells nice and looks good and everything is new.”

Dr. Lee said he plans to move Lee Family Dental into its new space at the beginning of March. The unit is larger than his current office, which will allow him to add a sixth dentist chair.

The building has four commercial condos. A third dental practice is in the process of acquiring one of the spaces and the fourth unit is still for sale. Northside Dental Care has been operating in Bellingham for 12 years and Lee Family Dental for three years. For more information, call Dr. McRory at 676-1138 or Dr. Lee at 734-3011.

 

Olympic Health moves into portable offices

Olympic Health Management, whose main offices are located at 2219 Rimland Drive in the Barkley District, received permits in mid-December to install three portable office buildings on the south side of the Heath Tecna building.

“We are adding space because we’ve outgrown our current space,” said Mike Gale, senior vice president of business development for Olympic. “The portables were an easy way to get new space almost immediately.”

The 10,000-square-foot portable offices will house up to 130 of the company’s 650 local employees, Gale said. The offices are a temporary fix while the company, also known as Sterling Life Insurance, considers building a larger building in Bellingham.

 

Keller Supply leaving Bellingham

Keller Supply is relocating from Bellingham, where the company has operated since 1977, to a three-acre site in Ferndale.

The plumbing and heating wholesale distribution company will move from 1908 Kentucky St. to Stonegate Park on Slater Road in Ferndale. Faber Brothers Construction is building the new 30,000-square-foot building and it is expected to be complete in June, said Keller Supply branch manager Brett Stackman.

Stackman said the company spent two years looking for places to relocate to in Bellingham, but said it was hard to find space allowing outside storage. The company needed a larger and more up-to-date facility, he said.

“We’re looking forward to some new digs and a real lunch room,” Stackman said. “This old building is getting a little tired.”

The new space, owned by Keller Supply, will also include a new Kohler-registered showroom.

Keller Supply is a family-owned distribution company based in Seattle for more than 50 years. It has 65 locations in the Western United States. For more information, call 676-1334.

 

Five-acre asphalt plant to open in spring

A new asphalt plant is set to open in Ferndale in April.

Associated Asphalt Inc. will be located on five acres at 4950 Labounty Road in Ferndale, owner Loren Vander Yacht said. The plant will be only the third active asphalt producer in Whatcom County, he said. The City of Ferndale recently issued a permit for the project.

“It’s a rarity these days, but we got a permit through the City of Ferndale,” he said.

The medium-sized plant will offer asphalt sales and residential and commercial paving and will be built to have an Enviro Star rating, Vander Yacht said. Previously, Vander Yacht worked as an estimator for 16 years at Whatcom Builders, which also produces asphalt.

The plant will initially employ 10 to 12 workers with family-wage-type jobs in the $20 to $30 an hour range, Vander Yacht said. For more information, call 410-7389.

 

Homestead Mortgage opens in downtown

After American Home Mortgage went out of business, senior loan officers Graham Youtsey and Gary Tice felt they had two choices — get a job at a bank or go out on their own.

They chose the latter and opened a branch office of Homestead Mortgage in Bellingham in November. The company is based in Kirkland and has two offices there. The advantage of joining forces with Homestead, Youtsey said, is that he and Tice are able to underwrite and process loans in house, and didn’t need to recreate relationships with banks.

The company offers traditional, commercial, reverse and second mortgages. The office is located in the Crown Plaza building at 114 W. Magnolia St., Suite 440. For more information, call 305-9703.

 

Sweet Factory opens in Bellis Fair Mall

On the Friday before Christmas, the Bellis Fair welcomed a new tenant: The Sweet Factory.

Located in Suite 322 near Kay Jewelers, the bulk candy store is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. From within the 730-square-foot space, the business offers every type of candy from chocolate to jelly beans.

The Sweet Factory has eight other locations in Washington state. This is their first in Whatcom County. For more information, call 734-1157.

 

WECU purchases new downtown site

Whatcom Educational Credit Union (WECU) recently purchased the Adventures Down Under building at 701 E. Holly St. for $320,000.

Robert Langei, WECU’s vice president and chief operating officer, said the credit union purchased the 1,200-square-foot building for future growth, but said nothing is planned for it any time soon.

WECU’s main branch, loan center and extra office space (in the former Baskin-Robbins building) are located nearby on the 500 and 600 blocks of E. Holly Street.

Ron Akeson, manager of Adventures in Scuba, said that when the time comes, the store would relocate in town, but added it would stay at its Holly Street space for at least another year.

The store, which offers scuba, swimming and water sports equipment and classes, has been located there for 15 years. For more information, call 676-4177.

 

New rate structure will save money

Low unemployment and a new rate structure for new businesses will save Washington employers more than $87 million in unemployment taxes in 2008.

The savings stem from a new law introduced by Governor Chris Gregoire in 2007 that reduces unemployment tax rates for new businesses next year and from lower tax rates for many employers, particularly those that had few or no layoffs in recent years.

“This is another sign of our commitment to strengthen our state’s economy,” said Governor Chris Gregoire. “Washington is already recognized as one of the top states for business, and reducing the cost of doing business improves our competitive advantage even more.”

The Employment Security Department is in the process of mailing tax-rate notices to more than 153,000 businesses.

Approximately one-third of the 9,482 businesses that were in the highest tax rate in 2007 will move to a lower tax rate in 2008, and the number of businesses in the lowest tax rate will increase by about 8 percent, to 76,473. As a result, about half of all Washington employers that are covered by unemployment insurance will be in the lowest tax bracket, paying a maximum of $2.29 a week per worker.

“Over all, employers should be happier about their tax rates going into the new year,” said Employment Security Department Commissioner Karen Lee.

The average unemployment tax rate will drop from 2.05 percent in 2007 to 1.7 percent in 2008. The highest rate will be 6.2 percent for employers that owe past-due taxes, and the lowest will be 0.35 percent.

Lee cautioned that a lower tax rate will not necessarily result in a lower tax bill for an employer. For example, an expanding business may have more workers and more wages on which to pay taxes.

She said that about 15 percent of insured employers will see rate increases in 2008, while 36 percent will see rate decreases and the rest will stay the same.

“It’s like car insurance. If you have a good driving record, you may qualify for a lower premium rate, but your total insurance bill will increase if you buy an additional car,” Lee said.

Additionally, the amount of wages on which employers pay unemployment taxes will increase in 2008. Taxable wages are determined by the average annual wage for all workers in the state. The taxable wage base will grow from $31,400 in 2007 to $34,000 in 2008. The increase will affect employers that pay their workers more than $31,400 per year.

For example, a business that pays one of its employees $35,000 per year would have paid $643.70 in taxes for that employee in 2007 based on the average tax rate (2.05 percent on $31,400 of the employees wages), but will pay $578 in 2008 based on the average rate for that year (1.7 percent on $34,000 of the employees wages), for a savings of $65.70 on that employee. So, on average, unemployment taxes per employee will decline by about 10 percent in 2008.

Employers that have laid off more employees in the past couple of years or had former workers who collected benefits for a longer time are taxed at higher rates.

 

Pacific Commerce Center complete

Bayfield Development Group, LLC, recently announced that construction of the Pacific Commerce Center in Ferndale is complete and the center’s units are now available for ownership and leasing.

The Pacific Commerce Center, located just off Interstate 5 on Highway 99 in Ferndale near Wilson Furniture, has 30,000 square feet of condo retail space. Designed and built by Faber Brothers Construction, it features five individual suites, ranging from 3,500 to 15,900 square feet. All of the spaces are now built and ready for occupancy.

One of the suites has already been sold to Northwest Hot Spring Spas of Bellingham and the other spaces have letters of intent and are under negotiations for sale and or lease.

The building’s concept allows smaller business owners to own space in a strip center environment, saving them thousands in overall development costs, said David Vargo of Faber Brothers Construction. For more information, call listing agent Jeff Hopwood at 676-5900.

 

I5autogroup.com opens on Woburn

I5autogroup.com, a new car dealership on Woburn Street, recently opened for business on Jan. 2.

The licensed dealership maintains a small lot of about six vehicles, but does most of its business online, said owner Robert Gillies. By buying directly from manufacturers online — most of which operate in California, where prices are lower because of the amount of consumer demand in that state — Gillies is able to maintain much lower overhead than other dealerships, he said. This results in saving his customers an average of about $5,000 a vehicle, he said.

Customers place their order requests with him and he finds them a match. When a customer finds and purchases a vehicle, it is either driven to Bellingham by an employee or on a transport truck, Gillies said.

Gillies deals in all 50 states and buys late-model, used vehicles under warranty. He has worked in the wholesale auto industry on the West Coast for the last 20 years. For more info, visit www.i5autogroup.com, or call 756-6545.

 

Sen. Murray secures federal funding for local projects

In December, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced critical federal funding for Northwest Washington and Bellingham priorities in the fiscal year 2008 Omnibus Appropriations bill.

Due to the threat of presidential vetoes of America’s domestic spending priorities, Congress combined several appropriations bills into one large “Omnibus bill.” The Omnibus package contained critical funding for national needs like transportation, homeland security, education, labor and health.

“This federal support is the seed money that helps our communities grow,” said Murray. “I am proud to have helped steer this funding to community-supported projects here at home. I work every day to ensure that even though our state’s residents are 2,500 miles from D.C., their needs are up-front and center. At a time when domestic and local needs are too often being neglected, these worthy projects are getting the support they deserve.”

 

Below are the projects included for Northwest Washington:

  • Bellingham Marine Trades Center, $245,000 to aid the community’s efforts to transform a five-acre tissue warehouse on the Bellingham waterfront into a center that will support the marine trades. The Center will support many existing small businesses that are water-dependent as well as provide job and businesses growth for the community.
    There are more than 100 firms in the marine trade and fisheries in Whatcom County and boat building and repair is identified as a Washington state priority for job creation and workforce training assistance.
  • Northwest Straits Initiative, $1,562,750 for a grass-roots effort to help protect and restore the marine waters, habitats and species of the Northwest Straits region.  The funding will support local project priorities in Clallam, Island, Jefferson, San Juan, Skagit, Snohomish, and Whatcom counties.
    Murray helped found the Initiative, bringing opposing stakeholders together in 1997, to create an advisory commission that would address local issues.
  • Northern Border Rapid Prosecution Initiative, $679,150 to help support Whatcom County law enforcement’s “Fast Track” prosecution system to help the county handle cases that result from border-related crime, captured fugitives, drug trafficking, and crimes committed by persons refused entry into Canada.
    The “Fast Track” prosecution system has reduced the overall time for all cases moving through the Prosecutor’s Office, and has freed up resources to deal with day-to-day local issues.
  • Multi-Jurisdictional Data Integration, $223,250 to help link the Whatcom Exchange Network (WENET), which tracks criminal offenders, to Canada and other U.S. jurisdictions. WENET increases officer and public safety in Northern Border communities by providing efficient access to real-time data from 11 different jurisdictions.

 

Real estate companies merge

Windermere Management by Ebright Wight recently purchased Property Watch, a real estate and property management company located at 477 Peace Portal Drive Suite 102.

Windermere acquired the company’s 53 properties, a majority of which are located in northern Whatcom County.

“We’re growing in that part of the region faster that in Bellingham,” said Sandi Jones, a broker for Windermere Management by Ebright Wight. “There’s a lot of properties for sale that are becoming rentals.”

Two new staff members were recently hired to help keep track of the more than 500 properties that the company has acquired this year, Jones said. For more information, call 733-7944.

Related Stories